Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

This is a 1992 biography of Feynman by James Gleick. The book provides good coverage of both the life and science of Feynman. Having read most of the books about Feynman, I can say that this is the best out there. 

In contrast to the other books which were anecdote heavy, this provides a more balanced coverage of Feynman's life and science together. The book also gives good insights into some aspects of Feynman's personality that was missing in the other books. I hadn't read about Feynman's nervous break down on his father's grave, his depressive episodes, and his rivalry with other physicians before. The book also has a chapter discussing Feynman's unacceptable attitude towards women.

The science coverage in the book is top notch, and gives a detailed explanation of how the field of quantum physics started and grew in to a discipline alongside Feynman's life. We get a good picture of how the proposed theories get refined and evolve as they interact with other theories and physicians both on the theory and practice side of the coin. While covering the science, the book manages to remain readable and captivating.

My most important takeaway from the book is that Feynman's success is due to his strong background in Math that he acquired himself during his middle school and high school years. He checked out Math books from libraries and studied them by himself. He not only learned from them, he has internalized everything. He invented his own notation for trigonometry and he custom-modified methods for integration for himself. 

"I had learned to do integrals by various methods shown in a book that my high school physics teacher Mr. Bader had given me. [It] showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign — it’s a certain operation. It turns out that’s not taught very much in the universities; they don’t emphasize it. But I caught on how to use that method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. [If] guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, [then] I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me." --- (Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!)

What I cannot create, I do not understand.

Feynman had this quote on his office blackboard. When he read papers by others, he would stop after problem statement, and try to construct the result himself. When he was learning about a new proposed theory, he would explain it in his terms and make it his own, and then simplify and improve on it. Feynman is famous for his great intuition and creativity, but these actually stem from his strong analytical skills and his internalization of all the legwork leading to the theory. He surely had mastered his tools and so he could apply them to new problems with ease.

Of course, another big part of Feynman is his passionate curiosity. This is likely seeded by his interactions with his father as a kid. Feynman has also carefully cultivated his curiosity throughout his life. When he failed to do so, he has suffered from being blocked and unable to do any work. I am guessing that his being a good story teller made it easy for him to regulate/cultivate his curiosity and drive.

Some highlights from the first chapters of the book

Architect of quantum theories, brash young group leader on the atomic bomb project, inventor of the ubiquitous Feynman diagram, ebullient bongo player and storyteller, Richard Phillips Feynman was the most brilliant, iconoclastic, and influential physicist of modern times. He took the half-made conceptions of waves and particles in the 1940s and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could use and understand.

One team of physicists, assembled for the Manhattan Project, met him for the first time in Chicago, where he solved a problem that had baffled them for a month. It was “a shallow way to judge a superb mind,” one of them admitted later, but they had to be impressed, by the unprofessorial manner as much as the feat itself: “Feynman was patently not struck in the prewar mold of most young academics. He had the flowing, expressive postures of a dancer, the quick speech we thought of as Broadway, the pat phrases of the hustler and the conversational energy of a finger snapper.” Physicists quickly got to know his bounding theatrical style, his way of bobbing sidelong from one foot to the other when he lectured. They knew that he could never sit still for long and that when he did sit he would slouch comically before leaping up with a sharp question.

For years he offered a mysterious noncredit course called Physics X, for undergraduates only, in a small basement room. Some physicists years later remembered this unpredictable free-form seminar as the most intense intellectual experience of their education. Above all in 1961 he took on the task of reorganizing and teaching the introductory physics course at Caltech. For two years the freshmen and sophomores, along with a team of graduate-student teaching assistants, struggled to follow a tour de force, the universe according to Feynman. The result was published and became famous as “the red books”—The Feynman Lectures on Physics. They reconceived the subject from the bottom up.

In private, with pencil on scratch paper, he labored over aphorisms that he later delivered in spontaneous-seeming lectures: Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.

There were other kinds of scientific knowledge, but pragmatic knowledge was Feynman’s specialty. For him knowledge did not describe; it acted and accomplished. Unlike many of his colleagues, educated scientists in a cultivated European tradition, Feynman did not look at paintings, did not listen to music, did not read books, even scientific books. He refused to let other scientists explain anything to him in detail, often to their immense frustration. He learned anyway. He pursued knowledge without prejudice. During a sabbatical he learned enough biology to make a small but genuine contribution to geneticists’ understanding of mutations in DNA. He once offered (and then awarded) a one-thousand-dollar prize for the first working electric motor less than one sixty-fourth of an inch long, and his musing on the possibilities of tiny machinery made him, a generation later, the intellectual father of a legion of self-described nanotechnologists. In his youth he experimented for months on end with trying to observe his unraveling stream of consciousness at the point of falling asleep. In his middle age he experimented with inducing out-of-body hallucinations in a sensory-deprivation tank, with and without marijuana.

“An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum.”

Melville Feynman (he pronounced his surname like the more standard variants: Fineman or Feinman) came from Minsk, Byelorussia.

There were no second thoughts in the middle-class Jewish families of New York about the value of ambition on the children’s behalf.

The adult Richard Feynman became an adept teller of stories about himself, and through these stories came a picture of his father as a man transmitting a set of lessons about science.

Still, his score on the school IQ test was a merely respectable 125.

For students whose competitive instincts could not be satisfied on the baseball field, New York’s high schools had the Interscholastic Algebra League: in other words, math team.

In his senior year, when all the city’s public and private schools competed in the annual championship at New York University, Feynman placed first.

He memorized tables of logarithms and practiced mentally deriving values in between. He began to fill notebooks with formulas, continued fractions whose sums produced the constants π and e.

Feynman could sink into a trance of concentration that even his family found unnerving.

The adult Feynman asked: If all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm, what single statement would preserve the most information for the next generations of creatures? How could we best pass on our understanding of the world? He proposed, “All things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another,”

Philosophy at MIT only irritated Feynman more. It struck him as an industry built by incompetent logicians.

Feynman had developed an appetite for new problems—any problems. He would stop people he knew in the corridor of the physics building and ask what they were working on. They quickly discovered that the question was not the usual small talk. Feynman pushed for details.

Developing a theory for reflection by multiple-layer thin films was not so different for Feynman from math team in the now-distant past of Far Rockaway. He could see, or feel, the intertwined infinities of the problem, the beam of light resonating back and forth between the pair of surfaces, and then the next pair, and so on, and he had a giant mental kit bag of formulas to try out.

It took him a few pages to demonstrate a better method. He showed that one could calculate the force directly for a given configuration, without having to look at nearby configurations at all. His computational technique led directly to the slope of the energy curve—the force—instead of producing the full curve and deriving the slope secondarily. The result caused a small sensation among MIT’s physics faculty.

A handwritten postscript that would not appear on the carbon copies Slater got to the point: “Feynman of course is Jewish ...” He wanted to assure Smyth there were mitigating circumstances: ... but as compared for instance with Kanner and Eisenbud he is more attractive personally by several orders of magnitude. We’re not trying to get rid of him—we want to keep him, and privately hope you won’t give him anything. But he apparently has decided to go to Princeton. I guarantee you’ll like him if he does. Morse, too, reported that Feynman’s “physiognomy and manner, however, show no trace of this characteristic and I do not believe the matter will be any great handicap.”

Quantum mechanics was triumphing not because a few leading theorists found it mathematically convincing, but because hundreds of materials scientists found that it worked. It gave them insights into problems that had languished, and it gave them a renewed livelihood. One had only to understand the manipulation of a few equations and one could finally compute the size of an atom or the precise gray sheen of a pewter surface.

Jehle told Feynman he had made an important discovery. He was struck by the unabashed pragmatism in Feynman’s handling of the mathematics, so different from Dirac’s more detached, more aesthetic tone. “You Americans!” he said. “Always trying to find a use for something.”

The Feynman aura—as it had already become—was strictly local. Feynman had not yet finished his second year of graduate school. He remained ignorant of the basic literature and unwilling even to read through the papers of Dirac or Bohr. This was now deliberate. In preparing for his oral qualifying examination, a rite of passage for every graduate student, he chose not to study the outlines of known physics. Instead he went up to MIT, where he could be alone, and opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About. For the first but not the last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject. When he was done he had a notebook of which he was especially proud.

It was said of Feynman that he had an extraordinary physical intuition, but that alone did not account for his analytic power.

Just as some people see numerals in color in their mind’s eye, Feynman associated colors with the abstract variables of the formulas he understood so intimately. “As I’m talking,” he once said, “I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.”

He did not wait, as Bethe did, to double-check every intuitive leap. His first idea did not always work. His cannier colleagues developed a rule of thumb: If Feynman says it three times, it’s right.


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